Archie Randolph Ammons | Critical Essay by Cary Wolfe

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Archie Randolph Ammons.
This section contains 5,326 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Cary Wolfe

SOURCE: "Symbol Plural: The Later Long Poems of A. R. Ammons," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 78-94.

In the following essay, Wolfe asserts that from "Essay on Poetics" on, "Ammons emphasizes the becoming, rather than the Being, of nature—the processes rather than the fixity of a logos which drives them." He notes a connection between Ammons's portrayal of nature and the English romantics.

For years now, Ammons criticism has in general followed Harold Bloom's reading of the poet out of the American transcendental—Bloom's "Emersonian"—tradition. Bloom's readings have been instructive, often exciting (and make for a compelling version of literary history); his work on Ammons and on other contemporary poets (Strand and Merwin come to mind) constitutes a fascinating thematics of what it is to be an American poet. In terms of poetics, however—and here I mean how a given poet constitutes his subject—Ammons needs to be examined in light of his highly ambivalent relationship with those writers who provided the poetic machinery for the transcendentalists in the first place—I refer, of course, to the English romantics. Here, I will replace Bloom's "Emerson" with the Coleridgean "symbol" and the romantic notion of the organic—though I hope to avoid what Frank Lentricchia has called the Bloomian "spirit of revenge." Rather, I want to argue that the romantic symbol must, for a poet like Ammons, be dealt with in the realm of poetics in much the same way that Emersonianism must be confronted as a kind of thematic bedrock for later American poets. The fact that Ammons's later poetry is highly discursive—I mean this in relative terms, as compared with, say, the work of James Wright—makes this sort of approach all the more imperative for Ammons criticism. Furthermore, I want to argue that Ammons's significant modification of romantic poetics constitutes a resituating of the ideological role of poetic writing and of the "aesthetic" as traditionally conceived.

Bloom has dubbed Ammons "a poet of the Romantic Sublime," yet in a fundamental sense Ammons's sublime is both postromantic and post-Emersonian; for this one-time biologist, oneness with nature is a brute (and brutal) fact, a "one-sided extension"—as much a curse as a blessing—which is (in Emersonian terms) finally not a fullness but an emptiness, a lack of common ontological ground that makes knowledge possible.

Part of the reason Ammons is able to embrace nature (sometimes in terror) while at the same time avoiding the appropriations of the romantics is that from the "Essay on Poetics" on he adopts a different model of nature, one fundamentally different from the talking wind and mountains of the early poems. Drawing his new model from cybernetics, Ammons emphasizes the becoming, rather than the Being, of nature—the processes rather than the fixity of a logos which drives them. It is important to note just how strong the connection is between the nature of the "Essay" and that of cybernetic theory. In its very first line we find the melding of literary and cybernetic diction ("lyric information") that runs throughout the poem. Ammons is attempting here to deal with the questions of how nature can in some sense be known and how poetry can have anything to do with that knowledge. By adopting the cybernetic model, Ammons achieves a distinctive modification of the romantic idea of organic form, largely because in the new context the idea of the organic is itself redefined. We might say, following Lentricchia's assessment of Northrop Frye in After the New Criticism, that Ammons's new organic opens outward, is centrifugal rather than the centripetal "innate" form of Coleridge.

It may be helpful at this point to offer a few key concepts of the cybernetic model drawn from Gregory Bateson's landmark essay "Cybernetic Explanation." The cybernetic universe is above all relational and formal; communication is a product of redundancy and repetition of pattern (the usual figure for this concept is the signal-to-noise ratio—the signal is recognizable pattern, the noise, the unidentifiable random). Pattern, in turn, is closely wedded to predictability: "To guess, in essence, is to face a cut or slash in the sequence of items and to predict across that slash what items might be on the other side…. A pattern, in fact, is definable as an aggregate of events or objects which will permit in some degree such guesses when the entire aggregate is not available for inspection." In cybernetic explanation, "information and form are not items which can be localized" because they are relational correspondences (between message and referent, item and context) which resemble the ideas of contrast, frequency, symmetry, congruence, conformity, and so on—they are "of zero dimensions." The difference between a piece of paper and a cup of coffee, for example, is not in the paper, nor is it in the coffee—the contrast (and subsequent information) cannot be localized. Cybernetic epistemology posits a concept of mind which is organic but not organicist: "The individual mind is immanent, but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem. This larger Mind … is … immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology." A final and important point from cybernetics is this: "All that is not information, not redundancy, not form and not restraints—is noise, the only possible source of new patterns."

The cybernetic model goes a long way, I think, in helping to explain the similarities and differences between the nature of the "Essay"—and to a large extent of all the later long poems—and that of the romantics. The opening of the "Essay," in both diction and conception, shows clearly the shaping presence of a cybernetic kind of thinking; the poem aspires to express something like immanent mind through "information actual / at every point / / but taking on itself at every point / the emanation of curvature, of meaning." The nature of the "Essay" is a "bit-nature" where each instance of wholeness and form is "internally irrelevant to scope, / but from the outside circumscribed into scope." Eighteen lines into the poem we come upon the crucial passage, the critical "but," which clearly distinguishes the cybernetic character of Ammons's view of nature from that of the romantics:

     but then find the wholeness
    unbelievable because it permits
     another wholeness,
     another lyric, the same in structure,
    in mechanism of existence

"Wholeness" is presented in the "Essay" not as the purified essence of existence but as a condition of existence, not as either one or many but as "a one:many mechanism."

Frederick Buell calls Ammons's new model a "partial humanization of nature"; I believe what Ammons recognizes and what Buell is trying to get at is that nature is for us always already conceptualized, symbolized, abstract:

                   I wonder if I'm really talking about
     the economy of the self….
           we never talk about anything but ourselves,
     objectivity the objective way of talking about ourselves

Ammons's shift to a "bit-nature," a nature not of Being but of evidence becoming information, "saliences," is not so much a willful move to humanize nature as it is a recognition of the abstract as a precondition of existence and of knowledge ("the manageable rafters of salience"); the attempt to deal only in the concrete results in the sort of dilemma discussed midway through "Hibernaculum":

                      nature seems firm with casual
     certainties (one could say a steel spike is a foot
     long) but pressed for certainty breaks out
     in bafflings of variability, a thousand close
    measuring of the spike averaged out and a thousand
     efforts to average out the variables in the instruments
     of measure or in the measuring environment
     (room temperature, humidity, the probable frequency
     the door to the room is opened): recalcitrance is built
     in perfectly, variations thereon perceived as possibility

This passage clearly echoes the cybernetic idea that conceptual "noise" (the recalcitrant, the as yet unpatterned or unassimilated) is the source of new patterns—variations on recalcitrance perceived as possibility. At the same time, the other end of the problem, so to speak—that of extreme abstraction—is constantly threatened with gaseous evaporation:

                                         the swarm at the
      subatomic level may be so complex and surprising that it puts
      quasars, pulsars and other matters to shame: I don't know:
      and "living world" on the other hand may be so scanty in its
      information as to be virtually of no account

We can see, then, that Ammons is being playful but also exercising a very concentrated economy of expression (underscored by the echo of "tree" in "true") when he writes, "true, I really ought to know where the tree is: but I know / it's in my backward." The organic becomes for Ammons a question of limits and perimeters. In contrast to a center, the location of "the primordial egg of truth," Ammons offers a mobile universe of which wholeness is an abstract condition, a beginning rather than a closure:

     a center's absolute, if relative: but every point in spacetimematter's
    a center: reality is abob with centers: indeed, there is
     nothing but centers

A center is, of course, an abstract matter; like form and information, it cannot be located but is rather the product of relational processes, as Ammons indicates in his grappling with the concrete particulars of trying to locate the tree in the back yard:

      I assume the fixed point would have to be
       the core center of the planet, though I'm perfectly
      prepared to admit the core's involved
       in a slow—perhaps universal—slosh that would alter the
       center's position

Ammons's argument with the traditional idea of organic form is that it isn't organic enough; its organicism is based on an idea of closure and completion rather than on an ability to maintain an open, functioning relationship with the accidental and haphazard—an ability to translate "noise" into "signal":

                                      I am not so much
      arguing with the organic school as shifting true organismus from
      the already organized to the bleak periphery of possibility,
      an area transcendental only by its bottomless entropy

Coincidental with Ammons's criticism of the closure of organic form as traditionally conceived is a similar attitude toward its analogues of symbol and lyric; the "already organized" is a condition for knowing which provides a "disposition" toward the unassimilated but can be changed by new data. The ontological point is of course that the "disposition" depends on the mechanism, and the sort of knowledge one derives depends upon both. The problem with the lyric is precisely its inflexibility as a mechanism for knowing; not open to the possibilities and potential waiting in the coincidental and the unassimilated, its intolerance gives the lyric its expressive power—its small explosion—but renders it, like some sort of exotic poodle, unfit for survival. The lyric is a "slight completion" (in both senses): "to be small and assembled! how comforting: but how perishable!" A similar distrust marks Ammons's attitude toward the idea of symbol. If anything, the symbol isn't abstract enough: "and the symbol won't do, either: it differentiates flat / into muffling fact it tried to stabilize beyond." The point Ammons is making is de Man's in "The Rhetoric of Temporality": by holding that some things are concrete and others abstract, and by then privileging a kind of concrete abstraction, the traditional idea of symbol draws us into a pseudo-dialectic of subject and object. For Ammons, the concrete as such is a myth but is valuable as a function, a nexus of localization in the "one:many mechanism":

      it's impossible anyone should know anything about the concrete
      who's never risen above it, above the myth of concretion
     in the first place

For Ammons, the particulars of nature are not of value primarily because they are concrete but because they are evidence—and evidence only makes sense, has meaning, within a larger framework of abstraction kept honest, so to speak, by new evidence. Ammons's empirical observation (as in, for example, sections 75-76 of Sphere), and his knowledge and use of the language of science, is unsurpassed in American poetry, yet almost always these empirical forays end in a questioning, a dizzying explosion into a new realm of complexities. Empirical observation pushed far enough dissolves, in one sense, into a question of the one and the many—finally, he writes, "a problem in rhetoric" which cannot be reconciled in language. (His discussion of "division" versus "differentiation" in "Hibernaculum" is helpful here.) Ammons's playful and prismatic variation upon Williams's "No ideas but in things" clarifies the point that the relationship between one and many, subject and object, symbol and symbolized is multivalent, always leaving an opening because always leaving something out:

                             the symbol apple and the
     real apple are different apples, though resembled: "no ideas but in
    things" can then be read into alternatives—"no things but in ideas,"
     "no ideas but in ideas," and "no things but in things": one thing
     always to keep in mind is that there are a number of possibilities

(Ammons characteristically underscores the point by the casual statement "one thing to keep in mind"—rather than "one idea to keep in mind.")

Ammons brings this sort of attitude to his discussion of the tree as paradigm of organic form, begun in the "Essay" and returned to regularly and finally as the oblique subject of The Snow Poems. What he refers to sarcastically as "the transcendental / vegetative analogy" is too tidy as an "analogy" and too simplistic as "vegetative." The "point of change" makes him realize that "actually, a tree / is a printout: the tree becomes exactly what the locked genetic // code has preordained—allowing, of course, for variables." But Ammons goes on to consider the fact that the "locked" code is "apparently based on accidence, chance, unforeseeable distortion"—like his center, it is absolute, but relative. The problem of identity as a paradigm of organic form persists:

                  if I back off to take the shape of a tree
     I gather blurs: when does water seeping into the roothairs
     pass the boundary after which it is tree

Ammons's symbolism is of a very different order; the tree becomes as much a symbol of difference and otherness—of all that it cannot contain—as it is a paradigm of identity and order.

The shift from tree as organic paradigm to tree as print-out is telling in a number of ways. The "point of change" can be expressed by the tree but cannot be located there, is not in the tree. If I examine the tree at different points over time, it will be each time, considered as a concrete thing, a different tree. I can induce change—its motion and perhaps its "drift"—from the variations, but the change is not in the tree, nor is it "between" one examined tree and another. The tree, in this sense, is like a frame of film; it has meaning only insofar as it is traced or inscribed with aspects of the frames which precede it and insofar as it serves to intimate some sense of predictability about the frames to follow.

The elm tree of The Snow Poems functions as a locus "to show change by reflecting light differently in a series of exposures." (It is worth noting here that Saussure used in his notes and lectures the terms "historical," "diachronic," and "cinematic" interchangeably to suggest that change or evolution is always an operation of abstracting change and continuity out of discontinuous items.) Ammons's shift to the print-out is, I believe, a movement away from the closed space of self-contained organic form which "partakes" (as Coleridge put it) of transcendent substance, and toward an emphasis upon the metonymic nature of the tree as a product of the "contiguous" conditions of its environment and of our perception of it. The form is thus not finished but open to the accidental and haphazard (and thus to new information and patterning). The crucial difference is that Ammons goes out of his way to present his metonymies as metonymies, to remind us that, in his readings of parts of a world for the whole, it is the mechanism and not the substance that informs the meaning of the organic. I emphasize the metonymic nature of Ammons's symbol to point out how it is resolutely untranscendental, "local and mortal." As Kenneth Burke has written, "Viewed as a sheerly terministic, or symbolic function, that's what transcendence is: the building of a terministic bridge whereby one realm is transcended by being viewed in terms of a realm 'beyond' it." And, Burke adds, "beyond the here and now." It is Ammons's openness and inclusiveness which gives his symbol—in contrast to Coleridge's—a kind of centrifugal character (this is, I think, in part what is suggested by "the emanation of curvature" of "one curve, the whole curve" at the beginning of the "Essay"). Ammons's symbol is "translucent," but to its own provisionality. Poetry achieves the greatest scope of meaning not by exclusion of all that is not organic form but by inclusion of all that might be. Ammons's unique brand of symbolism is in part his strategy for dealing with the dilemma described by Geoffrey Hartman (and we should think here of Stevens's variation upon Williams's "El Hombre"):

The aura of the symbol is reduced even as its autonomy is strengthened. It is ironic that, by the time of Stevens, "the philosophy of symbols" (as Yeats called it) confronts the poet with a new discontinuity: the symbols, or romantic relics, are so attenuated by common use that their ground (sky?) is lost. They become starry junk, and the poem is a device to dump them, to let the moon rise as moon.

Hartman's "starry junk" is in Ammons countered by the material of the moment—the "worn-outs, stiff-and-thins, the used-up literary." The "growing edge to change and surprise" of the poem can turn anything—trash included—into art with its "one:many mechanism" (while, Ammons would hope, retaining the essential "trash nature" of the bits). Unlike the early Ammons, the poet of wind and mountain, the last two long poems care less about the particular material of the poetry—rely less on wind or mountain—and more about making poetry out of whatever is at hand. Indeed, in both poems Ammons seems to gravitate toward the peripheries, away from the tidiness and centeredness of literary diction and lyric organization. We already see the desire for scope, whatever the risks, emerging in Sphere:

       I'm sick of good poems, all those little rondures
       splendidly brought off, painted gourds on a shelf: give me
       the dumb, debilitated, nasty, and massive, if that's the
       alternative: touch the universe anywhere you touch it

The key word in all of this is discontinuity. Ammons, confronted with the question of how to make poetry possible in a postsymbolist (and in some senses postliterary) context, begins with the "Essay" a new type of writing which emphasizes the discontinuity between word and world, writing and speech, but at the same time has a profoundly orphic dimension.

Ammons began, with the Ezra persona of the early poems, in a mode that presented itself as already an analogue of expression: "so I said I am Ezra" has no antecedent in the poem. It can only be interpreted as the result of something occurring before the Ezra persona "speaks"—something "outside" the poem or just before it begins. The poem begs to be read as an analogue of speech, the speech an analogue of the Ezra persona, and the persona, finally, an analogue of a human speaker. Implicit in the idea of poem-as-analogue representation is a continuity across ontological levels: the graphic array of language is an analogue for the acoustic, which in turn is analogous to the verbal, the verbal to the intellectual. A paradigm of analogue representation would be the clock: the movement of the hand is an analogue for the movement of the earth. Analogue representation is based on a real correspondence between real magnitudes—representation is motivated by the nature of its object. It is highly conventionalized and metaphoric in the sense that the nature of the representation is motivated by the nature of its object—the circular movement of the hands by the circular movement of the earth, for instance.

Digital representation, on the other hand, makes a point of its discontinuity with real magnitudes and asserts its abstract and arbitrary conventional nature. It can, unlike analogue, represent, and indeed must make use of, negatives. Rather than a fixed analogous whole, the disruption of whose syntax would destroy the entire representation, the digital representation is discrete and infinitely divisible. The continuity between 11:57 and 11:58 is so because in the conventions of the system 8 follows 7, not because of its correspondence to the actual magnitude of that which it represents (as in the case of, say, a thermometer). Analogue representation will emphasize accuracy; digital will emphasize specificity (the ontological ground for accuracy having been removed). As Anthony Wilden points out, "The digital mode of language is denotative: it may talk about anything and does so in the language of objects, facts, events and the like. Its linguistic function is primarily the sharing of nameable information … its overall function is the transmission or sharing or reproduction of pattern and structures."

We see Ammons, from the "Essay" forward, develop a style and form which makes a point of disrupting the idea or impression that his poems are analogue representations. The form makes a point of its own arbitrariness, its discontinuity: the three-line or four-line "stanza" of the later long poems (excepting The Snow Poems) runs from margin to margin, the writing structured simply by arbitrary imposition (line breaks do not coincide with acoustic or syntactic breaks or with a sonnetlike "shift of mind" of the speaker). In "Hibernaculum" and in Sphere, the arbitrariness is further emphasized by the grouping of stanzas into numbered sections—the more apparent the graphic structure, the less it matters at any other level. The "structure" is there to present a visual array pleasing in itself and not as an analogue of the acoustic or intellectual dimensions. When we move inside the stanza, we find a similar discontinuity emphasized again by Ammons's punctuation; there are no periods ("a complete sentence is a complete thought") but only colons, creating a "closeless" structure. As Robert Pinsky has written, "In movement from part to part, the strings of repeated colons suggest a conflict between the stationary or simultaneous and the developing or sequential; each part explains every other part, with a minimum of the consecutive structuring in which part rests on part as in a building or a tree."

The most apparent structuring device is the "friction" between the "regular" stanzas and the staccato movement of the lines produced by the colon, but it cannot be located in either one. Ammons gives us not a consecutive structuring which builds an analogical whole, but a series of read-outs—meaning kept up in the air by its use in circulation. Again, the movement is not inward toward closure—a zeroing in on meaning—but is centrifugal, providing a "growing edge to change," "increasing the means and / assuring the probability of survival." Even though the later long poems are linear, they are at the same time primarily nonnarrative, relying not on a principle of consecutive structuring so much as on a kind of accretive activity which oscillates back and forth from center to periphery, from specific to general, and so on. We could say that, although the form on the page is (of necessity) linear, the governing and informing principle is radial, "circling about, repeating, and elaborating the central theme. It is all 'middle,'… with apparently interchangeable structural units." This is, I think, the logic implicit in Ammons's playful assertion in "Summer Place": "circle around the truth without telling / it and you tell it." The attempt to make the governing principle of form radial is already present in the title and impulse of Sphere: The Form of a Motion:

      the essential without specification is boring
     and specification without the essential is: both ways out
     leaves us divided but so does neither way: unless—and here
     is the whole possibility—both essential and fashionable can
     be surrounded in a specified radial essential

Ammons's salient interest in arcs and curves gives rise to a desire for "a form to complete everything with! orb," a form whose center ("disposition") remains intact (because mobile) even as the periphery expands. As Ammons has said in a recent interview, "a poem doesn't exist only in motion, in time. It seems to me that when you know the poem intimately you know it radially and complete. You have a non-linear perception of the whole thing."

Still, the poem must, to open outward to such knowledge, insist on its own discontinuity, must be "chocked full of resistance." Writing of Sphere in "Summer Place," Ammons echoes the "recalcitrance built into nature" that resists "casual certainties," and he seems to want a similar resistance in his own work: "I wanted something / standing recalcitrant in its own nasty massiveness," "a big gritty poem that would just stand / there and spit." Underneath the complaining is, I think, a weariness of having the work taken as an analogue, a "fallacy of imitative form" too easily appropriated: "pretty soon you're a nature poet, everybody / saying, lands, something nice to go with dinner."

The Ammons of "Summer Place" and even more so of The Snow Poems, having generated a kind of radiant wholeness in the previous long poems, now emphasizes that his universe—as he had been saying all along—is a discrete whole (as in this example from the OED: "The parts of an animal form a concrete whole; but the parts of a society form a whole that is discrete"). This is, I think, the implicit logic behind much of Ammons's seemingly unpoetic diction of the "economy of the self"; Ammons resorts to terms like "currency," "interest," "account," "expenditure," "overinvestment" (a symbol is "the overinvested concrete"), "balance" ("all identities are imbalances") to speak of a wholeness while at the same time avoiding the ontological pitfalls of the language of organicism.

The discrete whole of society as theme is most explicit in "Summer Place." Concomitant with its patriotic ending and the inscription of The Snow Poems as a work "for my country" comes a shift inward toward the poet's own world, toward a poetry more explicitly discrete, separate, and discontinuous. The broad sweep of the earlier long poems is replaced by a more fragmented universe and the more intense internalization of voice of the highly "digital" Snow Poems: the work is (based on internal evidence and chronology) a long poem, but broken up into pieces; the titles are not analogues of the "content" of the pieces, but simply read-outs taken from the first lines (which, in a long poem, are not first lines). The voice is a bit more irascible and the verse more recalcitrant toward wholeness, including in its conglomeration "outriders," marginal glosses and counters, and games both typographical and lexical. The material at hand of "Summer Place" becomes here the material conditions of the poet's environment—elm tree, typewriter, dictionary, paper.

At the end of Sphere and in "Summer Place" Ammons becomes more overtly concerned with the social and the political; but the essentially liberal polemics here are not, I would argue, the source of Ammons's true political force. Part of Ammons's project has been to dislodge poetry from its closed and rarefied space, to situate it in what he would call a larger "network" of relations, most of them not particularly "aesthetic." If we look at Ammons's writing as a cultural and therefore social act—as his extraliterary and political content begs us to—then what we see is a rewriting of the idea of poetry and of the role of literary culture. To emphasize the making and not the made, the mechanism and not the substance, is to engage a poetics of the centrifugal, to consciously resituate poetry—and, by extension, culture—in a network of relations both biological and social. If, as Lentricchia has suggested in his reading of Burke, "To make metaphor is to violate in one act the status quo of discourse and of society," then we can see how Ammons is attempting to restore and reassert the power of poetry to be something more than "superior amusement," more than the various but marginal repetition of the Beautiful in all its highly allusive forms. I say "restore" because in the above sense poetry is always radical, always a subversion of the language of the marketplace—even, as Burke has argued, antinomian: "Art's very accumulation (its discordant voices arising out of many systems) serves to undermine any one rigid scheme of living—and herein lies 'wickedness' enough."

Ammons would seek to undermine those habits and institutions that compromise our lived awareness of the "saliences," of "massive suasions." Here again we need Burke to complicate what might seem like an easy holism, a "natural fact": "Any reduction of social motives to terms of sheer 'nature' would now seem to me a major error. Naturalism has served as deceptively in the modern world as supernaturalism ever did in the past, to misrepresent motives that are intrinsic to the social order." What Burke is getting at but does not say is that "nature" masks ideology; indeed, if (as Ammons realizes) we encounter a nature that is always already abstract, how could it be otherwise? Ammons often says, with little or no ironic cover (but with perhaps more than a dash of sentimentality), that his later long poems are "ideal organizations":

                          not homogeneous pudding but
     united differences, surface differences expressing the common,
     underlying hope and fate of each person and people, a gathering
     into one place of multiple dissimilarity

More important than the vision of genuine community here is the writing of it—through a poetics that goes beyond the romantics and thus speaks with special timeliness—into a radically decentered poetics not of Being but of beings, of a heterocosm "local and mortal." Truth then becomes not a metaphysical but a pragmatic matter: what, in the manner of the late William James, it is better for us to believe.

We could do worse than to read Ammons as something of a contemporary pragmatist, and in doing so helping to sharpen the contrast between the ideology of Ammons's work and the Emersonianism that Carlyle so much admired. We are, as Ammons reminds us in his earthbound variation of Emerson, "unmendably integral," and implied here is an imperative for conduct, but not only for the poem (as ideal organization) or the poet (as Emersonian representative man). Ammons's work is often the poetry of constraints and balances, of the local and mortal context; he rails against wastefulness in "Extremes and Moderations," and in Sphere would ground the work of mind in the specificity of its objects:

                           one terror mind brings on
     itself is that anything can be made of anything
                    … scary to those who need prisons,
     liberating to those already in

Ammons reminds us again and again (and often in oblique reference to the romantic symbol) that "all identities and effects are / imbalances." Keeping in mind Ammons's linkage of poetics and ideology, then, we can read in the following passage on the symbolic a dark parable indeed:

                                    when an image or
     item is raised into class representative of cluster, clump,
     or set, its boundaries are overinvested, the supercharge is
     explosive, so that the burden of energy overwhelms the matter,
     and aura, glow, or spirituality results, a kind of pitchblende,
     radium, sun-like: and when the item is moved beyond class
     into symbol or paradigmatic item, matter is a mere seed
     afloat in radiance

The source of the sublime in Ammons is the confrontation between the knowledge that "the mind will forever work in this way" and the understanding that the larger network of which it is a part cannot, finally, be subjected to such "overinvestment." The effect of what I have called Ammons's metonymic symbolism is to go beyond representation, beyond the romantic symbolic; as Ammons puts it: "When we have made the sufficient mirror will / / it have been only to show how things will break." Ammons's ideal organization seeks to unseat the idea of poetry as the polishing of such a mirror, to show us how we might go about things with a full awareness of the local and mortal context, how we might socially be otherwise by coming to terms with the physical, biological network of necessity that can't be otherwise. This is the social message of Ammons, of the poetics not of partaking but of making: "when may it not be our / task so to come into the knowledge of the reality as to / participate therein."

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